The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced a new investment of £11 million to fund four new complexity science research projects.
Funded under the banner of “Complexity Science for the Real World”, the four teams of researchers will will use tools and techniques of complexity science to address fundamental problems facing society, including health care, banking systems, natural disasters, sustainability and immigration. Of special interest to development and humanitarian specialists is the work being done by UCL on ‘Explaining, Modelling, and Forecasting Global Dynamics’, where researchers will study trade, migration, security and development aid on a global scale, as well as the interaction between these systems.
An interesting comment was made by an EPSRC senior manager upon announcing these funds: “The world is made up of interwoven orderly, disorderly and complex parts. Many of these complex systems have a big impact on everyday life and this new research will enable us to understand and manipulate them to the advantage of society.” (emphasis added)
The jury is still out as to whether complex systems can in fact be ‘manipulated’ – in fact this is at the heart of a fundamental debate about how all of us working on social, economic and politcal issues position our efforts in complex systems.
The experience of many in the aid sector would indicate that complex systems cannot actually be ‘manipulated’. But the lack of control implied by this is hard to accept. As Vicky Cosstick writes in her latest paper:
Problems that cannot be easily resolved create ambiguity, discomfort and anxiety. This anxiety may be particularly intolerable for those individuals in organisations who need to be seen to have the answers, or who feel the need to be seen to have the answers. And yet the work we do, whether as managers within INGOs or as external consultants, is rife with situations in which frankly we don’t know what to do, or we don’t know what the answer is, or we don’t really know what will happen as a result of our actions or a given intervention.
If they can effectively navigate these issues, the funded programmes really do have the potential to move forward our shared understanding of the relevance of complexity for real world problems. Watch this space for more on these exciting efforts as they unfold.